Two unexpectedly high bills from the City of Vancouver have plunged the Vancouver Pride Society into debt.
The first bill came last October, when the city suddenly charged Pride $125,000 for parade-weekend services — more than double the bill from previous years.
In contrast, the city charged just $48,615 in 2015, so when the 2016 bill arrived, VPS board members were shocked.
Pride appealed to the city for help and, after months of negotiations, the city has now agreed to forgive 60 percent of the bill, says Andrea Arnot, the VPS’ executive director.
But the negotiations took a year, and Arnot says Pride was slapped with a new bill for $67,956 for 2017, just three days after finally receiving the adjusted bill for 2016.
VPS directors say the combined total of $118,000 (from what’s left of the 2016 bill plus this year’s bill) is difficult to pay.
Largely as a result of these unpaid bills, Pride ended its 2017 financial year in August with a deficit of nearly a quarter-million dollars.
According to Pride’s most recent financial statement, its expenses exceeded its revenues by $238,626 in 2017 — leaving the VPS with an overall debt of $136,368.
That’s a departure from the last few years, VPS directors told members at their annual general meeting on Nov 25, 2017. Since 2014, when Pride ended the year with a surplus of nearly $140,000, the organization seemed to maintain nearly balanced surpluses and deficits, for typically positive year-end balances, directors said.
But the money it now owes the city “is too onerous,” Pride co-chair Michelle Fortin told the meeting.
“We are not asking them to forgive the whole amount because we recognize it costs money to do these things,” she said. “But we are asking them to recognize that this board and staff would like an accommodation of sorts.”
The city has now agreed to forgive $75,000 from its 2016 bill, says Arnot, who joined the VPS staff in March 2016. “The process was cordial,” she says. “We have a good working relationship with the city, so when we received the 2016 bill we emailed back right away and said, ‘This is way more than the quote we were given, could we have an explanation?’”
Asked what made the city’s bill suddenly jump in 2016, Arnot says city staff told her it has to do with the set-up costs for the Davie Street party. Rather than sending the usual traffic authority personnel to set up the street party, the city sent police officers, since traffic staff were already busy setting up for the fireworks at English Bay, she says she was told.
Xtra called the city to ask about the fee hike, especially since the fireworks fell on Pride weekend in 2015 as well. But in an emailed statement, the city’s special events department would only say that it “remains committed to supporting this iconic event and working with the festival in 2018.”
The emailed statement also noted that the Pride parade is one of three parades with civic status in Vancouver, which means it receives up to $50,000 per year to offset city and police charges. Pride also received a Community Arts Grant of $9,000 from the city in 2017, the email added.
After years of lobbying, the Vancouver Pride parade finally received civic designation in 2013, which means the city gives the VPS an annual grant of $30,000 to $50,000 to help cover fees for cleanup along the route, policing and money lost to unusable parking metres during the celebration.
But the city fees continue to rise, and the VPS does not know why.
“We actually don’t have an answer to that,” Arnot says. “There are things like inflation and peoples’ wages going up, and if you looked at the cost of putting on Pride events 10 years ago to now, everybody’s cost would be higher, for tents and toilets and suppliers. That’s probably part of it. The rest, we don’t have an answer.”
VPS co-chair Charmaine De Silva thinks the city should help Pride with the costs.
“To put it in perspective, the parade is a civic parade, so we get a $50,000 discount on our bill every year,” she told the VPS’ annual general meeting. “But other communities — for example, Toronto — don’t charge for the policing costs. We get the bill.”
“They’re great partners,” De Silva says of Vancouver city hall, “we want to work with them, but we hope that amount will go down. We don’t want to pay that amount.”
Arnot says it seems unfair that an event without civic designation, like the 4/20 marijuana celebrations on Sunset Beach, take up as much space as Pride and leave all their garbage, yet pay no bill.
Contacted for comment by Xtra, Vancouver city councilor Tim Stevenson, who was instrumental in getting the Pride parade its civic status in 2013, was shocked to hear about the bill.
“Oh my God, and you can quote me on that,” he says. “I had no idea.”
Stevenson says he is disturbed that Pride organizers did not contact him for help.
“I’d want to know what all these expenses were. I have worked very closely with VPS on this. I would have had them all in my office with my staff and we would have figured something out,” he says. “I will certainly be talking to the mayor about it.”
Stevenson confirms that the mayor’s chief of staff received an email from the VPS in the last few weeks, but says city staff and council will be working on the operating budget into the new year and the VPS’ finances likely will not come up before late January.
But, he adds, it’s not necessarily a simple question. “It’s a tricky situation if Pride is saying, ‘Please make us an exception and charge us less,’” he says. “And it’s all taxpayers money, so we are responsible to say, ‘Why would we forgive that?’ Before, they didn’t get any city money, and now they are receiving a portion of money. Taxpayers aren’t too happy when the city says, ‘Oh sure, we will just write that off.’”
While the bulk of this year’s VPS deficit comes from its unpaid city bills for 2016 and 2017, Arnot says part of it also comes from Pride’s own accounting procedures that saw financial statements filed based on best estimates, prior to those bills being received.
“Our year end is Aug 31. The city bill doesn’t come until October,” Arnot explains.
So the 2016 city bill was only estimated for the financial report shown to members last year — but the report was not adjusted after the actual (unexpectedly high) bill arrived.
Any adjustments for the actual bills received have only shown up on the following year’s financial statement, Arnot says. So the bills didn’t show up as losses in the year they were actually incurred.
But this year’s financial statement corrects for that, she says, and is now an accurate reflection of the bottom line, including the money the VPS now owes the city.
Arnot says Pride is making changes to its automated monthly bookkeeping system and will accurately reflect profits and losses for the year in which they’re incurred from now on.
“We are just saying ‘stop now’ and we are taking it all on the chin,” she says. “We’re just taking all of that now and saying here’s our deficit. We will climb out and everything will be accurate from here forward.”
Climbing out of debt may mean encouraging some community groups to hold their own events, rather than having the Pride Society fund them entirely. But those decisions have not yet been made, Arnot says.
Pride also received less than half the donations in 2017 that it did in 2016 (just $9,000 in 2017 versus $21,000 in 2016).
Arnot says that’s mostly because only one team of rainbow flag-bearers collected donations in the parade this year, instead of the usual two. Fewer volunteers showed up for that task this year, she explains.